Virtual Reality: Virtual Care, Real Results
One of the most exciting aspects of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) is their ability to let the user interact with an artificial world more deeply and intuitively than what is possible with simple keyboards, joysticks, and even touchscreens. This creates a whole new realm for developers to innovate when making experiences for consumers that haven’t been possible. One of VR’s greatest attributes is its powerful ability to distract, immerse, and otherwise cause the user to leave reality behind, temporarily. Even though you could call these potential risks, in the context of healthcare it unlocks the possibility to improve the lives of patients and practitioners in the healthcare industry.
How many patients suffer from pain, trauma, and other issues that they can’t escape in the waking world? The current method of treatment for these issues are typically either medications or 1:1 therapy with professionals, can be costly, take up a lot of physical space, and take up healthcare professionals’ already limited time. They do help patients cope and heal, but they are hardly scalable to the reality of how many people are suffering. With newly mass-produced and affordable VR technology, all providers need is a cheap VR headset and a small amount of space to creates endless possibilities for patients. Who could benefit from this technology?
Treating PTSD with VR
PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, is a psychiatric disorder that can affect individuals who experience traumatic events. Reliving the event that triggered the shock in the form of flashbacks and nightmares can be debilitating to individuals suffering from this disorder. While anybody can be diagnosed with PTSD, men and women who serve in the military are prone to developing symptoms with 30% of soldiers being diagnosed and another 20 - 25% experiencing some form PTSD in their lives.
Patients that suffer from PTSD have seen results by confronting the initial trauma through exposure therapy. This form of therapy involves navigating the patient through difficult events using writing or other means. VR has the potential to give an individual suffering from PTSD to confront their triggers in a safe, yet realistic environment. The immersive properties of VR allows for sufferers of PTSD to practice engaging with troubling situations and develop coping strategies to deal with them. The seclusion of VR also gives patients more privacy than classrooms and group sessions so they can work through issues at their own pace. The Bravemind project at the University of Southern California is another great example of this.
Advancing Therapy with VR
Therapy is commonly used for people suffering from physical ailments, chronic pain, and emotional issues. Medical professionals have started to realize the potential of VR and are gradually implementing this tech into their practices.
Boring and repetitive tasks are a huge hangup for patients going through physical rehabilitation. It is equally frustrating for practitioners when their patients aren’t doing assigned exercises at home and don’t make the progress they are both hoping to see. VR has the ability to motivate patients into do these essential exercises by creating fun and entertaining games to play that use precise muscles.
VR has also shown its potential for pain mitigation during procedures. A teenager in Texas suffered burns to a quarter of his body and has years of recovering ahead of him. Instead of using painkillers to numb him while nurses take staples out of his multiple wounds, they decided to distract him by putting in another world. VR helped this young man get through the pain of a procedure that previously left him wincing and squirming.
Emotional trauma is much more difficult to diagnose and measure progress. Counseling sessions and group meetings do help some individuals, but they can only do so much. Some medical professionals are using VR to help their patients through interactive emotional therapy. Practitioners have even used VR to safely walk rape victims through recreations of traumatic events to help them face their fears and start the healing process. This creates a more efficient system for therapists by allowing them to see many patients at once, check in on progress, and segment patients for better privacy.
Helping People with Mental Illness
Video games have been mainly used as a source of entertainment, but certain applications are becoming useful for helping with mental illness. Studies have shown that physically-interactive games can improve the balance, coordination, and mobility of individuals that have experienced a traumatic brain injury. These are promising results for the medical field looking for ways to make therapy more engaging and fun for patients.
VR has also been effective with learned and emotional behavior. Since a virtual world is infinitely malleable, it has been used to teach people how to act under pressure. Autism treatments are also seeing benefits from the VR boom. Simplifying facial reactions in a virtual world gives individuals on the autism spectrum a way to practice reading social cues and reward them when they exhibit good social behavior.
Combatting Disorders with VR & AR
Disorders come in many shapes and forms range from anxiety, to phobias, and even some that impact your ability to feed yourself. Many current treatments for these issues involve intensive therapy and talking through them, but having a way to safely enter situations that trigger these symptoms is a new opportunity.
VR and AR have been gradually introduced into treatment to give patients an extra step in dealing with their problems. Individuals who suffer from various forms of anxiety have seen results when they use simulations to enter situations that trigger their panic attacks. This is also used with individuals suffering from phobias, such as spiders or needles, to create safe environments for them to interact with these things and to confront their fears. Suffers of depression have also seen improvements in confidence and self-compassion through VR games designed to change their perspective of their self-image.
Getting Real Results with Virtual Reality
The power of VR is through making digital situations and environments which can be copied, modified, and controlled for the user’s comfort. This has the potential to change the medical landscape since VR can be endlessly reused for countless patients, it reduces space and materials required, lowers cost for treatment, lessens strain on doctors and scales their ability to treat their patients.